It's another summer season full of sequels on both the big and small screens, so now's as good as time as any to explore the many sequels, prequels, and spin-offs to some of the biggest titles in manga-dom, and one of the biggest in shoujo history was Fushigi Yugi. Now I've already made my thoughts on that series known, but for the longest time I always heard that this prquel series was far superior to the original, a rare feat in any medium. Were they right? Let's find out.
FUSHIGI YUGI: GENBU KAIDEN (The Mysterious Play: The Legend of Genbu Unfolds), by Yuu Watase. First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2005.
Takako Okuda is a spunky, athletic young lady growing up in 1920s Japan who finds herself in constant conflict with her scholarly father over her mother's waning health. During an argument with her father, Takako opens up her father's latest project, a translation of "The Universe of the Four Gods." In an instant, she is transported to a remote mountaintop in an unfamiliar land. There Takiko saves what she thinks is a young woman chained to a post, but instead turns out to be a wanted criminal who can change sex at will. Takiko now finds herself caught up in the adventure of a lifetime as she must now gather seven warriors to help her fulfill her destiny as the Priestess of Genbu., even if that destiny might mean the end of the world.
So let's be blunt: Is Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden better than the manga that inspired it? I can say with absolutely certainty that yes, it most absolutely is. Watase's skills had improved greatly during the decade between the original manga and this series, and it's also clear that she took some of the criticism of the original to heart. The end result of her effort is a far stronger story that's bolstered by a great leading lady and a greater focus on adventure than romantic indulgence.
Takako is as different from Miaka as night is different from day. Takako is smart, athletic and even a little sassy. It's safe to say that this girl does not want for backbone and is far less prone to strolling obliviously into danger. She's also got a surprising amount of anger inside her, as her frustrations with her father have started to fester into a general hatred of men. In all fairness, you can't blame for being frustrated her father can talk of nothing but his transcript until Takako is transported, and while it's clearly his way of dealing with his wife's condition it's also clearly tearing the family apart. Watase has also finally learned how to write male characters that aren't just Tamahome knockoffs. Oh sure, Takako's Celestial Warriors might have a similar gimmick as Miaka's, with their combination of elemental powers and symbolic tattoos, but their personalities don't hew so closely to the usual sort of reverse harem types. Limdo comes the closest to being the Tamahome expy, as he (she?) is blunt and self-serving, but he doesn't take it to such extremes and he comes off as more charming as a result. The only other warrior we've met thus far is Chamka, but as he's both a worrywart and a mama's boy, he's there mostly for comic relief.
The plot structure is admittedly a bit more similar to the original, although if we're being fair a LOT of manga ripped off the whole 'girl gets sucked into magic world, picks up a bunch of bishies, and becomes the Savior of the World' idea. I do think that Genbu Kaiden makes it work better than most. Takako takes on the cause not out of selfish desires, but out of a genuine heroic urge to protect others. She also demonstrates that she's more than capable of doing just that and it feels like Takako is control of the plot instead of the plot being in control of her and her whims. I sincerely hope it continues in this direction, because if so it could be the beginning of something that is truly epic in both a literal and figurative sense.
Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden is a prequel with the sensibility of a sequel. It takes the basics from the story that inspired it and expands and transforms them into something better and (at least so far) more interesting. It's stronger, more capable, and I'm far more interested in seein where this story goes.
The artwork hasn't advanced quite as far as Watase's storytelling and character-building has. Her characters are a little more literally rounded and substantial than before, but she still has a hard time not turning every guy to Tamahome. Still, at least she's using her bishonen more smartly, as Limdo's androgynous looks make his transformations a bit more believable. She has gotten better at expanding the scale of her stories. She frames her pages with lots of low angles to better capture the size and scale of the world around Takako, and some of the vistas are suitably grand. Sadly, she gets a little lazy when things get a bit closer, as she tends to resort to the old shoujo sparkles and screentones in close-ups. The changes to the art aren't revolutionary by any means, but the art of Genbu Kaiden has benefitted to some degree from the decade of experience that Watase picked up.
It doesn't matter if you didn't like or even never read Fushigi Yugi, because Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden works as both a prequel and as a stand-alone series. It takes a lot of the good stuff from the original and improves upon it, and the faults are far less severe and juvenile then that of its predecessor. It's a grand adventure that shoujo readers should check out for themselves.
This series is licensed by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 12 volumes available. All 12 have been published and are currently in print.